Last­ing in­flu­ence

The women in the lives of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce have al­ways been elu­sive and mys­te­ri­ous

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY COLM TÓIBÍN

On the moth­ers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

As I wrote Mad, Bad, Danger­ous to Know, an ac­count of the lives of the fa­thers of Os­car Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce, which be­gan as the Richard Ell­mann Lec­tures given at Emory Uni­ver­sity, I was aware of ghosts in the door­way, fig­ures mov­ing un­easily and silently in the shad­ows. All of these were women – the wives, the sis­ters, the daugh­ters, the lovers. Most of them – WB Yeats’s mother, for ex­am­ple, or James Joyce’s mother – left no di­aries or let­ters. The im­ages we have of them are as long-suf­fer­ing, dis­ap­pointed, ready to fade into ob­scu­rity, just as their hus­bands seemed trou­ble­some, noisy, as well as witty and orig­i­nal, and their el­dest sons were am­bi­tious, prodi­gious, de­ter­mined to fin­ish ev­ery­thing they started.

In these sto­ries the men are all ap­petite and rest­less en­ergy. They left enough ev­i­dence to be­come al­most fully know­able. Their wives and daugh­ters – es­pe­cially in the case of Yeats and Joyce – be­came the elu­sive, mys­te­ri­ous ones.

It would be easy to see the lives of these three men as ex­am­ples of ram­pant mas­culin­ity in the few decades be­fore women got the vote. But all three men were im­pelled by forces more com­plex and fas­ci­nat­ing than any sin­gle, sim­ple judg­ment might pro­pose. Life lit a bright if danger­ous fire in all three of them.

Their lives raise com­plex moral ques­tions. What they had was en­ergy, of­ten a chaotic form of en­ergy. The bad­ness, the mad­ness and the dan­ger, among other things, were part of a richly reck­less re­sponse to life.

After his wife’s death, when he was liv­ing in New York, WB Yeats’s fa­ther, John But­ler Yeats, wrote more than 200 let­ters to Rosa Butt, daugh­ter of Isaac Butt, whom he had known for many years and whose por­trait he had painted. She was liv­ing in Lon­don. They agreed to burn each other’s let­ters on re­ceipt. He burned hers; she kept his. On her death in 1926 (four years after the death of John But­ler Yeats), her niece, the painter Mary Swanzy, had the let­ters from old man Yeats placed in the Bodleian Li­brary in Ox­ford, not to be opened un­til 1979.

While John But­ler Yeats’s epis­to­lary style is frank, un­guarded, fully per­sonal, from Rosa Butt we get si­lence. She left only four words, words that we have be­cause they are quoted back to her in one of his let­ters. She be­gan one of her let­ters with the phrase “My dear old lover”, which sug­gests that she tol­er­ated, per­haps even en­joyed John But­ler Yeats’ ar­dent tone.

In the let­ters, writ­ten after his wife’s death, John But­ler Yeats paints a de­press­ing pic­ture of his mar­riage. He chose Su­san Pollexfen, he wrote, be­cause of her fam­ily’s ge­nius “for be­ing dis­mal . . . I thought I would place my­self un­der prison rules and learn all the virtues”. He later wrote: “I don’t think she ap­proved of a sin­gle one of my ideas or the­o­ries or opin­ions, to her only fool­ish­ness”. And in an­other let­ter: “If I showed her my real thoughts, she be­came quite silent and silent for days, though in­wardly fu­ri­ous.”

In an­other let­ter to Rosa, he wrote about Su­san: “I re­mem­ber that my wife never failed to tell you bad news. If there was good news it did not seem to her worth talk­ing about.”

Twelve years after Su­san’s death, in a let­ter from New York to his daugh­ter Lily, he wrote: “Had I had money your mother would never have been ill and would be alive now – that is the thought al­ways with me – and I would have done any­thing to get it for her – but had not the art”.

Just as the main way we can see Su­san Pollexfen is through her hus­band’s eyes, there is no mo­ment when May Joyce, James Joyce’s mother, gets to speak in words she her­self has cho­sen. None­the­less, there is a won­der­ful pas­sage in Stephen Hero where Joyce al­lows his mother to ex­er­cise her in­tel­li­gence and her judg­ment, as her son gives her the plays of Ib­sen to read. “The play which she pre­ferred to all oth­ers was The Wild Duck . Of it she spoke read­ily and on her own ini­tia­tive: it had moved her deeply.” When her son asked if she thought the plays im­moral, she replied: “I think that Ib­sen . . . has an ex­tra­or­di­nary knowl­edge of hu­man na­ture . . . And I think that hu­man na­ture is a very ex­tra­or­di­nary thing some­times”.

In The Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man, how­ever, the fig­ure of the mother will have no in­ter­ests other than do­mes­tic peace, house­hold ac­tiv­ity and re­li­gion. Her abil­ity to read and think for her­self has been con­signed to si­lence. Adream­na­tion

There was noth­ing silent about Os­car Wilde’s mother, who was known for her strong opin­ions and her grandil­o­quence. It is very easy to mock Lady Wilde, but it should be re­mem­bered that she pro­duced pi­o­neer­ing work on Irish folk­lore. Roy Fos­ter has writ­ten of these books: “Her folk­lore vol­umes pro­foundly in­flu­enced the young Yeats . . . they may also have been read by Bram Stoker.”

The Wildes were part of an un­ruly rul­ing class in Dublin. Their power de­pended on the am­bi­gu­ity of their po­si­tion. They of­fered al­le­giance to an Irish of the fu­ture, a dream na­tion, but Sir Wil­liam Wilde had no prob­lem ac­cept­ing a knight­hood for his pi­o­neer­ing work on the cen­sus re­turns. In Dublin, the Wildes did what­ever they liked. Sir Wil­liam fa­thered three chil­dren out of wed­lock and had a re­la­tion­ship with one of his fe­male pa­tients.

Al­though Sir Wil­liam made a great deal of money as a doc­tor, by the end of his life he was broke. “How are we all to live?” Lady Wilde asked after his death. So, too, John But­ler Yeats never man­aged to pro­vide for his fam­ily and needed the fi­nan­cial sup­port of his son in the last decades of his life. And de­spite in­her­it­ing six tenanted prop­er­ties in Cork and hav­ing a well-paid job as a rate col­lec­tor, John Stanis­laus Joyce could not man­age money. His story is one of slow fi­nan­cial de­cline.

Thus it is pos­si­ble to see the story of these three men as one of im­prov­i­dence, with much dam­age done to oth­ers through wil­ful­ness. And to sug­gest that the dis­ci­pline and en­ergy and

There was noth­ing silent about Os­car Wilde’s mother, who was known for her strong opin­ions and her grandil­o­quence. It is very easy to mock Lady Wilde, but it should be re­mem­bered that she pro­duced pi­o­neer­ing work on Irish folk­lore

orig­i­nal­ity Os­car Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce dis­played were a kind of re­tal­i­a­tion against their fa­thers.

Stanis­laus Joyce, James Joyce’s brother, has an in­ter­est­ing ex­pla­na­tion for the emer­gence of these writ­ers of ge­nius in the Dublin of these years. “In Ire­land . . . there is prop­erly speak­ing no na­tional tra­di­tion . . . When an Irish artist be­gins to write, he has to cre­ate his moral world from chaos by him­self, for him­self. Yet, though this is an enor­mous dis­ad­van­tage for a host of writ­ers of good av­er­age tal­ent, it proves to be an enor­mous ad­van­tage for men of orig­i­nal ge­nius, such as Shaw, Yeats, or my brother.”

In his book Dublin 1660-1860, Mau­rice Craig writes about “the mild melan­choly” of Dublin in the 19th cen­tury. “For all its mass move­ments, it is an era of in­di­vid­u­als, or oc­cur­rences ap­par­ently iso­lated and ap­par­ently with­out mean­ing.” Sir Wil­liam Wilde emerges from this world as fully orig­i­nal. His books on the Irish land­scape, as well as his work as an eye and ear doc­tor, show him as a man driven to change the world around him, of­fer it mean­ing and or­der.

John Stanis­laus Joyce had no in­ter­est in or­der; his life, the trou­ble he caused, pro­vided his son James with a chal­lenge. In a story such as Grace, Joyce showed how easy his fa­ther would be to mock. Joyce could have de­voted his life to drama­tis­ing his griev­ances against his fa­ther. In­stead, he set about paint­ing his fa­ther in a more am­bigu­ous and for­giv­ing light.

Of all three fa­thers, John But­ler Yeats was the clever­est and the most orig­i­nal. In his old age, he be­came one of the great­est let­ter-writ­ers of the age. Some of the ob­ser­va­tions in the let­ters are out­stand­ing: “I think lots of men die of their wives and thou­sands of women die of their hus­bands.”

In an­other let­ter to his son, he wrote: “A man with a per­son­al­ity may talk about many things, but in things which touch his per­son­al­ity, he will pre­fer to be silent”.

In his work as an artist, John But­ler Yeats was a great eraser and non-fin­isher, which al­lows us a new way to see his son’s ring­ing and con­clu­sive stanza end­ings. His fa­ther’s rad­i­cal un­cer­tainty and lack of in­dus­try may also have mat­tered to Jack B Yeats, who did not fol­low suit. But, in want­ing un­tidi­ness and spon­tane­ity from art as much as life, John But­ler Yeats was fully se­ri­ous, as he made clear to his son in a let­ter in 1906: “I think ev­ery work of art should sur­vive after all the labour be­stowed on it, and sur­vive as a sketch. To the last it must be some­thing struck off at first heat.”

Mad, Bad, Danger­ous to Know: The Fa­thers of Wilde,Yeat­sandJoyce (Vik­ing, £14.99)


James Joyce aged six with his mother May in 1888.

WB Yeats’s mother Su­san, painted by his fa­ther

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